Oro Valley’s Town Council’s seven members sank their teeth into a major planning exercise earlier this month, offering a glimpse at their priorities for the next two years.
Over the course of two day-long public meetings, the councilmembers and executive-level town staff engaged in an open discussion covering growth, development, future annexations, economic development and job creation, the Main Streets program, infrastructure and parks and recreation.
That’s a lot for any group to tackle in just two days, a point that discussion leader Patrick Ibarra readily conceded when I spoke with him a few days after the retreat. The specific goals of a strategic planning exercise vary with each town based on its specific needs, demographics and economic conditions, but Ibarra generally tries to accomplish two different things: fortifying the bonds between elected officials and better clarifying both near-term and long-term priorities.
“Two days doesn’t change everything, but I think it established a good foundation for this group to govern, figure out what to tackle and what the process is to tackle it,” said Ibarra, the co-founder of the Mejorando Group, which specializing in these kinds of strategy exercises.
Oro Valley Town Manager Mary Jacobs, who has been through a few strategic planning sessions over the course of her career, told me the process allows the town staff to better understand the intent of the Town Council, as it’s the job of elected council members to set the direction of the town government.
While it’s much easier to ascertain the priorities and goals of the individual councilmembers, it’s a different task entirely to gauge the interests of a seven-member body. Jacobs sees the planning retreat as the perfect opportunity to find out the council’s priorities to maintain Oro Valley’s prosperity (and to better understand the new council’s definition of “prosperity”).
Mayor Joe Winfield said the retreat didn’t just allow for Jacobs and her staff to better understand the council’s priorities, but for the council as a whole to better get to know one another. With the dust still settling from the 2018 election, Winfield said it’s easy to forget that Oro Valley already had planning in place and plenty of projects underway.
Winfield called the two-day excursion a “pivotal” moment for the council, as it allowed members the opportunity for the first time to speak freely without the relative restrictions of a council meeting. Winfield also said it was an opportunity to establish some rapport between the newcomers to the council—Winfield himself and Melanie Barrett, Joyce Jones-Ivey and Josh Nicolson—and the three members of council who earned their seats in 2016: Rhonda Piña, Bill Rodman and Steve Solomon.
While there were some slightly heated moments involving eye-rolling and a few heated words over development and the golf courses, the retreat showed that Winfield’s Election Night prediction that the Town Council could handle itself “civilly” held water. At least for the time being.
Between talks over development, business trends effecting the local economy and the quality of growth, Oro Valley’s strategic planning session offered a plethora of insights into the minds of its elected leaders. Here are my top takeaways from the Jan. 12 and 13 retreat (in no particular order).
The Oro Valley Marketplace, and economic development, is on everyone’s minds
There was much attention being given to the intersections of North La Cañada Drive and West Lambert Lane, and North Oracle Road and North First Avenue over the last two years as Oro Valley worked through the early stages of developing its Main Streets program.
As I reported last January, the Main Streets project is a concept to develop some sort of a downtown, or town center, in order to better secure the town’s continued economic viability, as well as to attract a variety of younger residents to the community. The town identified the two intersections, with a goal of developing outdoor shopping plazas linked via pedestrian sidewalks to a variety of civic attractions, nightlife and restaurants.
While the Town Council is still concerned with economic development throughout the community, the Oro Valley Marketplace was the top priority in terms of future effort. Jacobs said tackling the shopping center’s future would require a multi-faceted approach, and that many of the principles from the Main Streets program would work well at the marketplace (and throughout the town).
Much attention has been drawn to the marketplace over vacancy rates. As the Explorer has reported, major tenant Dick’s Sporting Goods relocated to Tucson Mall from Oro Valley last summer. And while Winfield acknowledged there are real issues to be addressed, he felt like the marketplace has been “getting kicked around” too much, while its successes—like the dining options, the theater and various events hosted at the complex—aren’t being acknowledged enough.
“It’s like my marriage,” Winfield told me last week. “If I always focused on the bad things about my wife or she focused on the bad things about me, we wouldn’t be able to live with each other. Let’s market the positives, and see what we can do to improve it.”
The entire council and Jacobs agreed that much of what Main Streets hoped to accomplish—improved walkability, diversified development and improved community spaces—could apply to any retail development.
Oro Valley Economic Development Director JJ Johnston has already delivered his economic development strategy, and Jacobs said there is an interest in proceeding with a town-wide retail analysis to better understand the demographics of the community and their shopping habits. Jacobs also mentioned the town working with marketplace developer Vestar to look at what can be done at the site.
The Parks and Recreation Department is due for some assessment
During the second day of the retreat, the council and Ibarra began to turn their focus from general discussion and more towards specific needs and goals individual councilmembers wished to address.
Quick to surface—and a popular topic during the campaign trail—was concern over the future of the town’s parks and recreation department, and how the council could best use the various parks, trails and community events.
Are there unmet recreation needs within the community? That was the driving question kicking off the conversation, with Winfield noting that the town doesn’t “have a vision of what our parks and rec program should be.”
Parks and recreation in Oro Valley means a lot of things to a lot of people, and the needs of the community will typically vary with whom you ask. The 2014 survey is a perfect example: While things like jungle gyms and playgrounds seemed most important to the community, one could argue that the town’s older population (and those with adult children) may see no practical use for more playgrounds in town. I’ve heard as much myself over the last three years, though I personally find the point of view selfish and short-sighted.
The notion of assessing the needs of the department and developing a parks and rec master plan seemed widely supported by staff and council.
Speaking with me several days after the retreat, both Winfield and Jacobs said the completion of that assessment could also better inform council as to the creation of a new master plan for the Naranja Park town site, where there is currently a plan for a new $350,000 playground in the next fiscal year (2019/20) budget.
More opportunities for resident involvement are on the horizon
The Oro Valley Town Council recently created a new resident budget advisory board to get public input on the town’s fiscal operation. It appears another new commission could find life before long.
Winfield said he heard repeatedly from older residents over the course of his door-to-door campaign that they felt like there wasn’t enough programming geared towards their demographic because the focus has been on families and children over the past decade or so.
Now that he’s in the hot seat, Winfield told me he wants to develop a “Senior Advisory Council” of some kind to get more citizen input. Aside from new commissions, both Winfield and Jones-Ivey repeatedly mentioned the erosion of trust in the council, and an interest in reversing that lack of faith.
But how do you restore trust? According to Winfield, communication is key, and he hopes council will begin that long road by attending different community events and interacting with residents
“I think that the community senses that we’re willing to join them in whatever gatherings they have,” Winfield said.
Council found some common ground
Despite any small moments of tension over the course of the planning retreat, Barrett said the Town Council will find much more success as a legislative body if they work from common ground, and luckily for the residents, there were plenty of points on which all seven members agreed.
While it wasn’t directly addressed, it was apparent after two days that each of Oro Valley’s councilmembers deeply cares about their community, and wants to see the town prosper in the future. While the routes they believe most suitable for the journey may differ, each councilmember hope to eventually reach that city upon a hill.
The golf course seemed like it would provide one of many forks in the road for the seven community leaders, though Piña instead used the lightning rod topic as a moment for the council to find common ties.
“We’re more aligned than you think,” she said. “All seven of us didn’t vote for it.”
Now what that statement means in application is anyone’s guess, as the council spent little time dwelling on the golf courses or the community center, choosing to instead leave that discussion for a study session planned for next week.
Aside from the community center and golf courses, Winfield said it was helpful to hear the thoughts and concerns of Piña, Rodman and Solomon in a positive setting.
Ibarra said that the the positivity Winfield felt was all part of the program. There are a lot of community leaders who choose not to participate in planning retreats, Ibarra said, mistakenly believing that their future development is limited solely to conerns about resources.
Success is more than equipment, funding and development, Ibarra said. It’s about taking responsibility for moving the community forward.
“Oro Valley has a lot of promise,” he said. “The town has done things incredibly well to enrich the quality of life for its residents, but like all communities will have challenges going forward.”
Two days seemed like five minutes with everything the group covered, and there’s plenty for the Town Council, Jacobs and the rest of staff to absorb and possibly implement in the coming two years. With their own notes to discuss, Jacobs said she and department leadership will host their own one-day retreat to “put some meat on the bones.”
“In many ways, the council says this is where we want to be, and now we have to sort of decide what that’s going to look like, and what the departmental objectives are that will get us there,” she said.
After staff develop their implementations of council’s vision, Jacobs will return to Town Council sometimes in late February during a study session to explain the work. Final approval of the strategic plan is expected to take place no later than April to coincide with the budget process.